Instructional Coaching: 5 Principles for a Successful Practice

“Would you come sit in on the music unit of my intro Spanish class and tell me how to get my kids up and dancing?” Katherine Dunbar, a veteran high school English teacher, would think of her reply, Um, I don’t speak a word of Spanish and please don’t ask me to samba, but “Yes!” Another colleague would ask, “Would you help me plan a chem lesson that will take care of those SMART goals I was forced to write during Opening Staff Week?” It’s now late-May, but “Yes!” And another teacher would inquire, “Would you help me figure out ways to shake up my lesson plans? My algebra/trig class is stale!” If I don’t have to solve for x, “Yes!” 
With a couple of decades of experience under her belt, Dunbar noticed a few years ago that her colleagues at Georgetown Day School (DC) more and more frequently asked if she could give them “just a bit of coaching.” They were always grateful for little pieces of feedback, and she loved every minute of it. But she was also left with a nagging feeling: Not only was the advice “pretty random” (to borrow student lingo), but she was certain there was a real need for trained coaching at her school that extended beyond these casual requests.
So, Dunbar dove headfirst into instructional coaching PD—conferences, books, seminars, you name it. She built the case for the need and began to design the ongoing professional growth program, got buy-in from school leaders, and added instructional coaching to her teaching responsibilities. In 2021, GDS expanded the instructional coaching program by three (one full-time coach per division) and all four colleagues trained with Elena Aguilar and Bright Morning Consulting. Now the team is seeing the effects of how teachers are deepening their practice through sustained, individualized work and the importance of five coaching principles.

Instructional Coaching Principles

In The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation, Aguilar highlights the benefits of her transformational coaching model: “Coaching allows teachers to apply their learning more deeply, frequently, and consistently than teachers working alone. Coaching supports teachers to improve their capacity to reflect and apply their learning to their work with students and in their work with each other.” At its core, the shared work between coach and teacher is deeply relational, founded on trust in the partnership and a shared commitment to lifelong learning and equity in the classroom.
Trust. At the heart of every instructional coaching program is trust. When it exists between a coach and teacher, the coaching relationship can be teacher-driven, nonevaluative, confidential, and relational—these are the key ingredients to transformation. The best way to establish trust with teachers is to stay focused on what builds and sustains a trusting relationship in any realm: being empathetic, dependable, nonjudgmental, responsive, and attentive. When teachers feel confident, they can trust their coach; they allow themselves to be vulnerable and growth-oriented. This is when the magic happens!
In Dunbar’s coaching experience, one of the most powerful “trust moments” has come in the conversations she has with teachers during their biannual student feedback collection. The trust they’ve built in one-on-one relationships leading up to these conversations allows teachers to first work through their emotional response to the student feedback they’ve collected—and there are lots of emotions—and this clears the way for teacher and coach to do the generative work of discovering feedback patterns and creating realistic action plans. A teacher’s feelings of vulnerability can quickly shift to a sense of empowerment in a trusting coaching relationship.
Connection. Early coaching conversations include time and space for exploring the peaks and valleys of one’s professional journey, the teacher’s self-identified strengths and struggles, and the core values that guide the teacher’s practice.
Cara Henderson and Jana Rupp, both on the GDS instructional coaching team, often ask open questions that can help teachers connect with past experiences and assumptions that may benefit from interrogation and even disruption. Through conversations, planning sessions, small-group workshops, and classroom visits, the coaches get to know and understand what is happening across learning spaces. This perspective allows them to connect colleagues with one another to nurture a deepening of skill sets and a sense of belonging. Celebrating what colleagues are doing and sharing their wisdom with others creates a supportive professional learning community where colleagues feel seen, and successes are celebrated.
Reflective practice. Rupp uses a strengths-based approach to build on what teachers are already doing and guides them in refining their practices based on observations of student engagement. Department chairs also schedule peer-to-peer visits. Rupp visits classes with the teachers when possible and facilitates the post-visit conversations.
During a recent peer-to-peer debrief, the teacher noticed the effectiveness of random grouping on his students’ collaboration and reflected on how he might alter the instructions of the activity to encourage more participation. The visiting teacher shared how the use of vertical whiteboards for collaborative learning would be something they would like to use in the future. At the end of the conversation, the teacher noted, “The classroom visits and reflective debrief sessions have allowed me to see the effective strategies my colleagues are using, feel affirmed that my struggles are not unique, and know that I am supported by my colleagues and instructional coach to make changes in my practice.”
Equity. Education practices must ensure access to quality learning for all students, honoring their diverse backgrounds. AzureĆ© Harrison, a member of the GDS instructional coaching team, encourages teacher growth in the areas of self-efficacy and cultural competency, using strategies that challenge bias and invite student perspectives in decision-making processes that impact the classroom experience. Harrison helps teachers understand that when students connect learning to their own experiences and cultural backgrounds, their brain's ability to process and retain information improves. Equitable teaching practices foster an environment where students feel seen, heard, and respected. In one case, Harrison helped a fourth-grade teacher resolve class participation issues in her class. Using cogenerative dialogues— structured conversations that allow teachers and students to discuss the classroom experience and bring hidden personal experiences to the forefront—the teacher gained insights that helped generate class solutions that resulted in an engaging, inclusive learning environment with more positive relationships and increased student motivation and achievement.
Agency. Igniting teachers’ capacity to act purposefully to direct their professional growth, find solutions to challenges they face, and improve their practice are key to the GDS instructional coaching program. Henderson says her coaching conversations often include the exploration of a teacher’s noticing or wondering.

A veteran teacher recently shared he was feeling stuck with one class. He wanted to hear more from his students during in-class discussions and wasn’t sure why that wasn’t happening. Henderson observed the class to provide targeted feedback about the clarity of his communications and observations related to student participation. Henderson and the teacher debriefed the observed class and explored a few ideas about how to proceed. Ultimately, the teacher spent some class time sharing his observations and his hopes for upcoming class discussions. He made time for students to share openly as a group or as individuals—in person or via email, whatever best suited their individual preferences and comfort levels. The choice about how to proceed is less important than the clear understanding that the choice always belongs to the teacher. 

The beneficiaries of a thriving instructional coaching program—based on trust, connection, reflection, equity, and agency—are the students entrusted to our care. Whether a school is just now becoming aware of instructional coaching, or it is already supporting a well-established program (or someplace in-between), these coaching principles will have a positive impact.
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Katherine Dunbar

Katherine Dunbar is a high school instructional coach, English teacher, and English department chair at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C.

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Azureé Harrison

AzureƩ Harrison is a lower school instructional coach at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C.

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Cara Henderson

Cara Henderson is a high school instructional coach at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C.

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Jana Rupp

Jana Rupp is a middle school instructional coach at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C.